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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Wildlife Wednesday: San Joaquin Coachwhip

SJ coachwhip closeup. Photo courtesy of Laura Pavliscak

                Last week, our Stewardship Manager, Laura was driving around the Old Headquarters area of Tejon Ranch when she saw something in the road. A snake? In February? Yes indeed! Excited, she and her companion jumped out of their vehicle and began taking pictures. It’s a good thing they did, because as it turns out, this was a significant observation for Tejon Ranch. Not only does it represent a new part of the property for this species, it’s also a particularly early sighting. What kind of snake, you might be asking? Well, it’s the San Joaquin coachwhip (Coluber flagellum ruddockii), of course!
                As the scientific name suggests, the San Joaquin coachwhip is a subspecies of coachwhip (Coluber flagellum). Currently, there are four recognized subspecies of this snake in the U.S. and two of them occur on Tejon Ranch. In addition to the San Joaquin coachwhip, the determined herper (one who studies reptiles and amphibians) may find Coluber flagellum piceus, or the red racer. Adults of latter can be distinguished in the field by its dark coloration behind the head. These two subspecies also overlap along the coast in Los Angeles and San Diego counties.
                One thing that makes the San Joaquin coachwhip of particular interest to us at the Conservancy is its native range. Robert C. Stebbins’ Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians (3rd ed.) indicates that the majority of its range is in the San Joaquin Valley and into the Coast Ranges to the west and extends along the south coast. Throughout its range, urbanization and industrial-scale farming have contributed to decreasing suitable habitat. Here at Tejon, we have a significant amount of grassland, desert-like, and chaparral habitat that these creatures love.
San Joaquin coachwhip in arid grassland habitat. Photo courtesy of Laura Pavliscak
                In addition to being listed as a California species of special concern, this is a particularly beautiful serpent. A sharp eye will immediately identify its slender profile, striking scales, and delecate coloring that is uniform throughout the body (though juveniles can be more banded). Apparently, the braided pattern of the scales and fine taper of its tail make it look like a whip employed by horsemen. Its narrow head has a large yellow eye. While beautiful, the San Joaquin coachwhip is also notorious for being aggressive, so don’t get too close a look! This behavior comes in handy as this snake hunts all kinds of prey from ground mammals to birds to carrion. They will even eat bats (! 
Coachwhips can grow to be quite long! Photo courtesy of Laura Pavliscak

                                To learn more about this amazing California endemic (that is, it’s an organism that occurs nowhere else in the world), check out these resources:

Nafis, G. “Coluber flagellum ruddocki – San Joaquin coachwhip." 26 February 2014.
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Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.